When ‘Safe Spaces’ Become An Attack On Ideas

There is something deeply reactionary brewing in American higher education.

The events at Yale and the University of Missouri over the last few weeks make plain that the movement for trigger warnings in university classrooms and safe spaces on campus has turned into a dogmatic moral illiberalism.

We should pay attention to what’s happening. With a few years lag, Australia tends to enthusiastically adopt American intellectual fashions.

At the University of Missouri, anti-racism activists announced that their protest encampment on public property was a “safe space”. A student journalist, Tim Tai, tried to report on the protest.You can watch what happened. In the first half of the video, you’ll see the activists surround and attempt to intimidate Tai. In the last 10 seconds you’ll see no less than an assistant professor of mass media shout for “muscle” to remove another journalist for simply filming a public protest.

The Yale incident appears more trivial, but is more telling.

Just before Halloween, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee emailed students asking them to ensure their Halloween costumes did not involve offensive “cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation”. In response, one Yale lecturer and associate master at Yale’s Silliman College, Erika Christakis, objected that the idea that cultural appropriation was inherently wrong could stifle free speech and open debate.

Christakis’ email was apparently beyond the pale. Outrage spread across Silliman College. An opinion piece in the Yale Herald responded that “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” (The piece was taken down but you can read an archived version.) The New Yorkercomplains Christakis was “privileging abstract free-speech rights over the immediate emotional experiences of those who are likely to experience discrimination at the university.”

In these two events, we’ve dramatically seen how the apparently benign movement for trigger warnings in university classes and safe spaces for students has metastasised into a more general assault on the contest of controversial ideas in higher education.

The original idea behind trigger warnings was to advise students who had experienced serious and severe trauma, such as sexual assault, that they were about to hear some disturbing content. You can understand the reasoning behind the warnings, as a reasonable concession to the fact that some material, particularly in humanities subjects, can be highly confronting. Likewise the safe space – say a women’s room – might be seen as a benevolent amenity.

But trigger warnings have become absurd. Some students are requesting classic literature come with warnings. And safe spaces are morphing into places where infantilised students hide from ideas.

Now this movement has turned into a generalised attack on open discussion. The entire higher education experience is being reconceptualised as a zone of post-trauma, in which students demand faculty protect them from the expression and thoughts of others.

Using the language of psychological harm, ideas are condemned, rather than rebutted. Students can receive “pain” from the decision of another person to write an email. It is wrong to “privilege” free speech, a mere “abstract right”, over personal emotional experience.

It’s hard to think of anything more contrary to the purpose of education – which is, in the broadest sense, the systematic exposure to ideas outside personal experience – than that.

One of the arguments in Christakis’s email is worth dwelling on. Not her main points about the benefits of provocation, or the challenge of defining what costumes are offensive, but her point that, from a childhood developmental perspective, students need to learn how to reject ideas that trouble them, rather than running immediately to ban and punish.

This accords with the most well-known argument for freedom of speech – that made by John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty. Mill argues that by hearing contrary ideas, if only to consider and discard them, we grow intellectually.

In this way, free speech and education are tightly intertwined. Limit the former and you hinder the latter. An education system where the students are excessively cushioned from the provocation of others will stifle that development. One would hope you could graduate from Yale being able to articulate why some ideas are wrong.

But what about students who have experienced genuine trauma? Even then, it’s not clear that preventing “triggering” is the best response, as Jonathan Chait noted earlier last year. Students who are genuinely unable to cope with incidental references to that trauma might not be ready for the window into the breadth of human experience that education is supposed to provide. If you are triggered by the racist language in Huckleberry Finn, you are not ready to study 19th century literature.

For those who are ready, hiding from every reminder of trauma can be counterproductive. There’s a growing area of research into what’s known as “post-traumatic growth”, the idea that some people who experience trauma can become stronger for the experience, rather than made permanently fragile.

This isn’t for everyone, of course. Talk to your doctor. But education is supposed to foster intellectual development. It is not supposed to be a safe zone of comfort and emotional protection. Campus radicals used to brag about how transgressive and provocative they were. Now, it seems, they’re more interested in policing the transgressions and provocations of others.